Seth LeClerc Sr. did not expect to see Almer in Joe's Saloon. He certainly did not expect him to make the offer he did. He had not seen his old friend for at least a year. Almer lived almost too far away to visit on foot, and he seldom came into Serpentville anymore.
"Seth," Almer said, once they settled down at the bar. "I don't want to put a damper on this get together, but it wasn't exactly by chance that I’m here. C'est pas un accident." Almer spoke Cajun with an occasional slip into Creole. He rubbed the palms of his callused hands against his faded jeans as he talked.
Seth was well aware of Almer's habits. They went back a long way. Almer was the oldest. He had taught Seth how to drink wine and beer and where every honky tonk was located in Ellison Parish. The Ellisonville police chief warned them both not to set foot in his town again. Shortly after that warning, Almer married and became a family man.
"I was headed to your place," Almer continued, "when Joe told me that you come by here every Saturday night. I have a serious proposition to make you, and I don't want to make it until after we have a few cold ones. Let's visit a while first." Almer took a long drink from his beer and licked the foam off his lips. "I might be a bit drunk when I make you this proposition, but remember what I said because I'm telling it straight now that I'm sober. C'est sérieux. Plenty serious."
Seth drank his beer and wondered what his friend had on his mind. It wasn't like Almer to be so mysterious. He knew from word of mouth that Almer was having some sort of money problems, but just about everyone around that part of the country usually had money problems from one time to another. These things usually had a way of working themselves out.
"It isn't like you to be so serious, Mer. There was a time, I remember, when I couldn't shut you up."
Almer smiled revealing tobacco-stained and rotten teeth.
After he married Bernice, Almer sunk whatever money he had into a little farm he bought from Clancy Fontenot and rarely came into town anymore. He became responsible.
"It sure is good to see you, Mer," Seth said as the evening wore on. "It's been too long." He paused and drank from his mug. "How's Bernice and the kids?"
Almer stared down at his callused and dirt-stained hands wrapped around his empty beer mug. "I can't make it no more, Seth. I got hit real hard last year with the weevil, and I lost almost all my cotton crop. On top of all that, my sweet potatoes were nearly wiped out, too. It doesn't look like I'm going to do much better this year. I can't even afford to feed my family anymore. I owe so much the law is likely to put me in jail or take my place away from me. And then what?"
Seth bought another round of drinks to hide his confusion. In all the time he had known Almer, he had never heard the man sound so hopeless.
"You don't know what it's like," Almer continued, once the beers arrived. "I'm a fairly good man. I never hurt anyone when I could help it. Oh sure, you and me, we had us a pretty wild time there for a while, but we never hurt no one that didn't deserve it or expect it. It's been thirteen years since I started my farm, me and Bernice. Now, I can't even afford to feed my family proper. I've been doing some thinking, and there just isn't much for this man to live for."
"That's fool talk, Mer. Hell, at least with you around, there's some hope. Without you, your family is on their own."
"Hope? Yeah, there's some hope, but it doesn't rest with me." Almer paused, rubbed his hands on his thighs, and took a long drink from his beer. "I said earlier that I had a proposition to make you. You want to listen to it?"
"If it'll get you off that fool talk, I'll listen."
"I got seven kids, Seth," Almer began. "Except for Billy, my youngest, they all work in the fields along with me and Bernice. It's not that I got anything against the youngest. In some ways, I think I favor him more than I do the rest, but he doesn't do any work and probably won't be any use in the fields for another two or three years." Almer paused and leaned forward a little, closer to his friend. Seth could smell stale beer and cigarette on his breath. "I know this sounds bad on my part, but he's just dead weight. I can't afford to feed him if he doesn't do any work. Me and Bernice, we talked it over and well, we'd like to give him to somebody that can raise him and give him what he should have." Seth started to protest, but Almer stopped him. "Before you say anything, Seth, let me tell you this. Me and Bernice, we talked it over for a long time. It's been close to a year since I first mentioned it to her. At first, she was dead set against it. But with the loss I'm taking again this year, she finally had to see it my way. We want you to keep the boy, Seth."
Seth tried to digest what his friend had just told him. Someone dropped a nickel in the jukebox and a Nathan Abshire tune filled the saloon. Joe swiped a rag over the bar.
"I'm not God to be judging what you do with your kids, Almer," Seth began. "But to pick me doesn't show much sense. I think you've been drinking too much."
"Bernice said just about the same thing when I told her I wanted you to raise the boy. 'Him?' she said. 'He's no good except for drinking and chasing women.'"
"Sounds to me like Bernice has some sense, Almer."
"Let me finish, will you. I know better than that. You were always good people. Even when we were doing all that drinking and stuff, you were the one who kept me in check. Why, if it hadn't been for you, I'd still be sleeping in the Ellisonville jail or under it." Almer shook his head and grinned. "You did some fancy talking with Marchand. We were lucky he didn't lock us up. What did you say to him?"
"I told him that the man you cut up said some nasty things about his wife, and that’s why you did what you did. You were just defending the chief’s wife is all."
"I'm afraid so. I guess he believed me."
"I'll be." Almer rolled a cigarette and lit it. He inhaled deeply and allowed the smoke to trickle out through his nostrils. "I talked to Emit and Elcid a while back, and they both told me that you were upright and honest and didn't drink more than the next man, but that isn't the point, though."
"Just what is the point, Mer?"
"The point is that you can afford to drink. I had my talk with Bernice like I told you, and I let the facts talk for me."
I haven't heard any facts, yet." Seth drank from his beer. Almer placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Seth, the facts are as plain as that nose on your face. With me, the boy hasn't got a life to talk of, except in the fields, and that's only if he is lucky. With you, he's got a future. How old are you? About thirty, I suspect?" Seth nodded. "You're old enough to be responsible, and you're single. It doesn't cost you much to live and besides all that you have a good job working for Emit."
"That's just it. What'll happen to the boy when I go to work?'
"He'll go with you. He's good at doing things by himself. You could get Pete's wife to keep her eye on him while you work. Rowena would do it for you."
"You got all the answers, don't you, Mer?'
Almer shook his head.
"No, I don't, Seth. If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here asking you for this favor."
"What if I meet some woman and want to start a family of my own?"
"I don't see that as a problem. The boy will always be welcomed back to his real family. Maybe I'll be out of this hole I'm in."
"What if I say no, Mer?"
"Then I have no choice. I'll do what I can. He won't have much of a life. I was counting on you, Seth. I wasted all my dreams, and now, there’s no more left. What can I give the boy except a miserable life in the fields? He can forget about any schooling. He's going to have to work, so I can afford to feed him. That's what you'd be saying no to. Don't you see, Seth? With you, he has them dreams I wasted away. With you he has a chance.” Almer ground out his cigarette in an ashtray sitting next to his elbow. “Please believe me, Seth. This is not something I’m doing lightly.”
Seth spent a restless night. He had finally agreed to meet with Almer's son. It had not been easy to accept Almer's story in the bar, and the doubts multiplied with the morning light. He wasn't sure whether he was the fathering kind. He needed more time to think the situation over. He and Almer were playing with a human life. What if what they were doing was the wrong thing? What then? How do they correct the mistake?
Seth spent the better part of the morning wondering whether he should keep his appointment with Almer, or whether he should just stay home and send word to his friend that he decided not to meet with the boy. Eventually, his commitment to his word won out, and he decided to go. The matter of the boy would be decided once he saw how everybody reacted.
He walked to the back pasture and called Emit's Pinto pony. It was a long walk to Almer's house, and if he did decide to bring the boy back with him, he wanted him to ride. Once he had the pony bridled and tied to the front gate, he pulled a bottle of Calvert whiskey from his back pocket and took a long pull from it. The liquor felt warm as it worked its way down to his empty stomach. He addressed the horse.
"It isn't exactly decent for a man to hit the bottle this early in the day, Prince, but I have to calm those nerves of mine. I'm as jittery as a groom."
He untied the horse and led him up his grassy lane to the gravel road that led to the Ellisonville blacktop. He would follow the blacktop for five miles until he reached Serpentville, and from there, he had another five miles to go along the Isaacton gravel road before he reached Almer's shack. The sun had already made its presence felt. His khakis quickly soaked through in the humid Louisiana heat. Occasionally, he would stop and suck on the pint of whiskey while the horse drank out of the drainage ditches along the roads whenever he found one with water in it. There was little traffic on the Isaacton gravel road, and what there was, raised a cloud of dust that settled over everything. He reached the lane that led to Almer's shack, late that afternoon. He wasn't as nervous as he had been that morning; the whiskey had done its job. He hummed to himself, creating a tune out of the plopping sound his shoes made in the thick dust. When he noticed what he was doing, he stopped.
"Listen to me humming like an idiot, Prince. Come on, boy. Let's go find some shade and set a spell before we go face those people."
He led the horse to a clump of scraggly dust-covered cottonwoods and sat leaning against one of the tree trunks. It was cool under the trees. From where he sat, he could see Almer's shack. It looked neglected. Most of the imitation-brick tarpaper had peeled off, and the unprotected cypress boards underneath had taken on that hard-gray color that comes from being exposed to the weather. There were large patches of orange and brown on the mostly rusted roof tin. Two empty windows faced Seth over the sagging front porch. He had seen the shack once or twice before, when Almer first moved into it. It had been a strong house. Almer talked about adding on to it. He was going to replace the cistern with a well. Bernice was thinking of putting up lace curtains in the windows. They were going to paint the porch green, the same color as the little cedar tree, which stood in the front yard. Seth shook his head from side to side. The cistern was still there after thirteen years, and although the cedar had grown into a big tree, the porch was the same hard gray as the exposed boards.
Seth gazed at the field that surrounded the shack. Almer was guiding a plow pulled by two mules. His family was scattered behind him, kneeling beside potato crates, sorting, grading, and crating the sweet potatoes exposed by Almer's plow.
Seth stood and brushed some of the dust from his clothes. He pulled the pint from his pocket, but replaced it untouched. It was time for him to face the boy.
He tied his pony under the cedar tree and sat on the battered front porch steps. He watched as two of Almer's boys made their way across the field to where he sat.
"Hello, boys," he said. "Is your daddy coming?"
"Oui, monsieur Seth," the older boy answered in the formal Cajun. "He'll be here in a minute. Soon as he's done with that row he's on. Me, I gotta go back to my work." He turned to his little brother. "Bye, Billy boy. Take care." He ran back into the field before Seth could get another look at his face.
"That brother of yours sure is in a hurry."
The boy did not answer. Seth indicated that he could sit next to him, but he remained standing. He was a frail thing, probably three or four years old. He wore no shoes, and two bony knees peeked out of torn jeans. He kept two dirt-covered hands at his side. His face needed washing. Streaks of dust mixed with sweat caked his face and made him look like a little savage. There was no hint of what was going on inside his head except a small knotting of his eyebrows. Under the dirt, the face revealed strength and character. Someday, the boy is going to make a mighty good man, Seth thought. If he can keep his inside and outside separate.
"You sure are a quiet fellow," Seth said, after a few minutes of silence. "Don't you talk any?"
"No, he doesn't," Almer said from across the yard. He had tied the mules to a fence post under the shade of a young water oak. "Not much anyway. He likes to keep to himself."
"So, there you are. You know, we said a lot of things last night. Made a lot of promises. I came here not knowing exactly what to expect.”
"The proposition still stands. The boy is yours to raise as you see fit. He's been told." Almer sat next to Seth. "You know, Seth, the Lord is hard on us farmers. He starts you out with nothing, and let's you build up your hopes from there. Then when you think that you've got no way but up to go, bang, he shoots you right back down to the beginning. Hell, I'm worse off now, than I was when Bernice and me started this little farm. At least then, I didn't know what I was up against. The Lord's got no call for doing that to me and my family. I've done nothing to deserve that."
"It's not all his fault, I suppose."
"Maybe so. Maybe I just started off wrong." He stood and looked at his family, working in his field. Then he turned and looked at Billy. "He hasn't got any hope with me. It's my duty to give him a chance to start off right."
"Almer, do you know what you're asking me to do?”
"If anybody knows, I do."
Seth studied his friend's face.
"I'm still not so sure that this will work, but okay. The boy comes with me. There's going to be some conditions, though." Almer nodded. "For one, the boy will keep your name. I want him to know who his real daddy is, and I want you to swear that you'll come by to visit him every once in a while. He's going to be your boy. I'm just taking care of him until you get back on your feet."
"You're a mighty good man, Seth. Très bon."
"My horse and I need some water, and then we'll be on our way. As it is, it'll be long dark by the time we reach my shack. Maybe the boy would like to say some goodbyes before we take off."
"He said his goodbyes last night. He hasn't got but a few things stuffed in that flour sack by the front door. The bucket by the cistern has some fresh water in it. You can give that to your horse."
Seth gave the bucket of water to his horse and stood next to him as he drank. Almer stood next to his son in silence for a moment, and then grabbed the boy's flour sack. He carried it to Seth.
"I appreciate this," he said.
"I'm doing this because you and me go back a long ways and because you think I can do the boy some good."
"I know." Almer walked back to the boy, seated on the porch steps.
"Billy boy," he said standing over the boy. "It's time for you to go with Seth, here. I want you to treat him just as if he was your daddy. You're going to have to do what he says. Now, go get on the horse." The boy obeyed and walked to where Seth and the pinto stood. Seth helped him straddle the horse.
"Good. Make me proud. Be good." Almer left without another word. He walked to the mules waiting patiently where he left them.
Seth took the pinto's lead rope and started up the lane. When he reached the clump of cottonwoods, he stopped. He heard a sniffle from the boy.
"Look," Seth said softly. "I won't pretend to be your natural daddy. It wouldn't be honest to both of us. Let's just say I'm your temporary appointed daddy. That way you and me can be friends without all those rules that sometimes, natural daddies make up. I'm going to promise you two things. One is that you will never have to go anywhere again if you don't want to. Second, I promise to do right by you. I'm not one for much talking, especially about feelings and such, so I'm going to tell you this right now and probably won't mention it again, so remember this. I'm going to raise you as if you were my own blood. That'll mean you'll have to take the good along with the bad. There will be both. All I ask from you is honesty and fairness. I promise to give you the same." Seth gazed at Almer and his family in the field. "Now, I spoke my piece. If you want to cry for what you left back there, go ahead." Seth motioned the field with his head. "It can't be easy leaving everything you've ever known, but it seems to me, you got lots of crying left to do in your young life. You might want to save some for when you need it again."
The boy swiped a dirty arm across his eyes and sat up on the pony.
"Allons-y," he said in a small voice.
"Come on, Prince," Seth said, smiling. "Let's me, you, and William head on home."
While I was in college, I wrote this piece trying to capture a story about my father, who, like Seth, raised a child for a friend going through some extremely hard times. The boy lived with Daddy for several years, got an education, turned out to be a successful television repairman, and became my parrain, my godfather.